I stood on a cut bank bright with autumn, the hoarse shouts of ravens echoing in the silence. Across the Kobuk’s clear, tannin-tinged flow rose a prominent, birch-spangled knoll; and beyond stretched an expanse of country, rising toward the looming, cloud-brushed pyramids of the Jade Mountains. This place, Onion Portage, known to the Inupiat as Paatitaaq (for the wild, onion-like chives that grow here), is marked by a great looping bend several miles long where the Kobuk reverses direction and almost circles back on itself before resuming its meandering westward flow.
I lingered here as people have since time forgotten—not just centuries, but millennia according to the work of archeologist Louis Giddings. Roaming alone through the upper Kobuk in the early 1940s, Giddings, a researcher from Brown University, found his way to Onion Portage as so many had before him, following the river, drawn by the shape of the land to this convergence of terrain that twice a year funneled migrating caribou as well. Hunter-gatherers congregated here to harvest the land’s bounty—meat and skins and sinew; berries, edible plants, and runs of fish; and nearby deposits of jade, prized for tools and weapon points.
Following years of pioneering fieldwork elsewhere in northwest arctic Alaska, Giddings returned to Onion Portage in the early 1960s to expand his earlier digs and discovered remnants of cultures dating back 10,000 years—at the time, among the oldest confirmed human presences on the continent. Assisted by local Inupiat, notably my now-gone friend Nelson Greist, Giddings and his crew unearthed and documented 30 separate layers of habitation; artifacts of not only ancestral Inupiat, but of earlier cultures: ancient peoples with their own distinctive tool styles and traditions, whose presence predated the rise of the earliest known civilizations—those of Mesopotamia, China, India, and Egypt—by thousands of years.
These people left no great cities; slight depressions marking sod house pits scattered in the willows and fragments of their tools and leavings are the only signs of their passing. But one might argue their cultural accomplishments rivaled those of Babylon’s architects. Their legacy to us all can be summarized in a single word: survival.
Consider the land these people roamed: then, as now, a harsh, sprawling country gripped by ice seven months a year, where temperatures sometimes plunge a hundred degrees below freezing and the sun barely rises for weeks; a place where simply finding enough to eat and maintaining body temperature poses an existential challenge. Abundances in the Arctic are fleeting, and sometimes fatally elusive. Traditional Inupiaq lore is filled with tales of starvation and hardship, and the record of those who came before points to a lifestyle even more difficult. Unlike the Inupiat, the Denbigh Flint people and other early arctic forebears apparently lacked dog sled technology, which meant much less mobility in a land that demanded it. I can’t help musing why these early Alaskans, paleolithic nomads from northeastern Asia, didn’t fare onward, southward toward a more forgiving climate. Instead, they embraced this dauntingly hard place and somehow made it home.
All this stands as prologue to the true genius of these people, of whom we know so little. They had no time to create written language or erect great walls. Their sole cultural accomplishment, which demanded complete energy and focus, was somehow finding and fashioning all their necessities—food, clothing, tools, shelter, transportation, medicine—from this austere land. Not some, or most of it; all of it. The mute testament of their success, year after year for thousands of years, through interspersed times of plenty and famine, is witnessed by the fragments of their passing strewn sparingly in sandy, frozen soil, one layer on top of another, reaching upward toward the present where we stand. Without that sort of determination, ingenuity, and resilience, borne across time in the double helix of our species’ being, none of us would be here.
The exact details varied, of course; but these ancient cultures all shared that central, necessary ethos: the land as sole provider. With the possible exception of traded goods with similar, neighboring peoples—think caribou hides from inland exchanged for seal oil from the coast—there were no alternatives or fallbacks. Though we have an incomplete window into the ancient past, we can gain a solid perspective into how they might have managed from the traditional Inupiat who most recently inhabited the upper Kobuk valley. Their archeological record is far more robust due to being more recent, and their technology was observed by early explorers.
This being the Arctic, the bulk of food came from animal protein, creatures as large as caribou and grizzlies and as small as bird nestlings and insect larvae. Fish were of special importance, and both migrating waterfowl and small mammals had their place. Meat needed to not only be plentiful, but fat in order to provide prolonged sustenance. Most parts of an animal were utilized; in the case of the all-important caribou, the superbly insulated hides provided head-to-toe clothing and shelter; pieces of horn and bone, tools ranging from hammers to scrapers to sewing needles; sinews became thread; brains mixed with ash, a tanning compound for those hides. And of course, anything that could offer energy and nutrients, from nose cartilage to eyes to blood to upper stomach contents, was eaten. The diet was rounded out according to season by berries, edible greens, and starchy tubers—fresh, dried, or preserved in rendered fat.
Early hunter-gatherers wielded lances and spears of differing types and were experts with bows and arrows. The tips of their weapons and tools were forged from flint-like chert, jade, and bone. They likely used driving techniques to funnel animals to hunters and utilized various snares, nets, and deadfalls; and no doubt foraged from light canoes and kayaks fashioned from birch bark or animal hides over a framework of willow and spruce. Though they didn’t have sled technology, they certainly did have dogs that carried loads, offered protection, and aided in hunting. Rope and twine came from braided willow bark and spruce roots.
When on the move, travelers used skin tents or huts of cut willow branches; semi-permanent homes were made of insulating sod blocks carefully heaped against a pole framework, usually dug into a well-drained south-facing slope. Light and heat came from animal oil-fueled stone lamps and fire rings. All people were expert crafters as a matter of course, constantly making, sewing, chipping, sharpening, their waking lives filled with the business of staying alive. One generation after another, cultural layer on layer, each was more similar than different over thousands of years.
So, what to make of myself—as much an outlier to the surrounding archeological record as anyone could be? With the exception of my skiff’s spruce push pole, everything I have along—everything—is from somewhere else far away, made by strangers. Though I could argue that a good part of me is made of meat from the land, I’ve somehow strayed, lost that intimate connection to it—become a buyer rather than a maker, dragging along a pile of fancy junk from everywhere that connects me to nowhere, and to nothing but itself. The more I reflect, the more trouble I have convincing myself I belong, let alone that I can claim any sort of cultural advancement over those resourceful, determined, unspeakably tough people that hunkered along these banks in dark, smoky huts thousands of years ago. Quite the opposite, in fact, considering their final, simple brilliance: not only finding everything they needed from the land but leaving so little behind. Through the lens of the present, I see not a primitive but an incredibly advanced culture: self-sustaining, green, and the definition of organic, of and from the land. If only we could do half as well.
Nick Jans has written over 500 magazine pieces and 13 books. His latest award-winning collection, The Giant’s Hand, is available at nickjans.com.